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Oil Patch Elegy

By Published On: May 28, 20190 Comments on Oil Patch Elegy

The sulphurous aroma of crude oil seeps out of my very identity. 

My dad, my grandfather, and my great-granddaddy worked in the oil patch around the small town of Taft, California.  Taft is Bakersfield without the glitter.  It’s been the set for many movies: it is a town frozen in time.  Its fortunes have always been tied to the oil industry, going up and down like a pumpjack with the price of crude. 

Taft is where the workers live.  The big-shots live in fancy places, as far away from Taft as they can get.  The town is a grid of dusty lots with modest houses surrounded by chain-link fences.  A fair number of its structures were jury-rigged from oil field detritus:  pipes and rusty corrugated iron sheets.

P.R. Coil, my grandma’s dad, arrived in Taft in the 1920’s, shortly after the era of monstrous gushers that blew out of pressurized oil deposits.  It was still the “Wild West”, with workers living in canvas tents.  Crews raided each other to steal pipes, gear, and derrick beams.  P.R. was a roustabout, roughneck, and carpenter.  I inherited a lot of the woodworking hand tools he used to build derricks.  He did hard labor in the oil fields until well into his 70’s.  I knew him as a taciturn, wiry old man.  His sun-baked skin had the color and texture of a well-used leather wallet.  As a teenager I was fascinated by his stories of Taft’s early days.  He lived to the age of 99.

My granddad, Ray Burklo, maintained the motors on Union Oil pumpjacks for decades.  He was notorious for his acrobatic ability to single-handedly light up the “one-lung” gas engines that powered the “nodding donkeys”.  Arms and legs synchronized, he’d snap the governor and spin the heavy flywheel just right to get the spark to light at full compression and start the motor.  One false move and the flywheel could have snapped his arm off.  He had a gold front tooth, memorializing the time he was on the derrick floor when a sucker rod fell out of its hanger up in the crown-block at the top.  The long, thin steel rod dropped like monster spaghetti, its end spinning wildly, taking out his tooth while barely sparing his life. 

My dad, Don Burklo, spent a shorter time working in the oil patch.  He spent his college summers surveying the fields, and knocking down the old wooden derricks that P.R. helped build, making way for steel pumpjacks and portable well-pulling rigs.  He and his co-worker would saw a 2′ piece out of one of the legs of the derrick, make a cut in the opposite leg, and then, with a sledge hammer and wedge, snap the cable on the far side of the derrick from the leg they’d cut out.  Down the derrick would go in a thunder of shattering beams.  Dad is 90 now, and I treasure his stories from those days more than ever.

In my teen years, I spent a week or two every summer in Taft.  By then my granddad had died.  P.R. would live with Grandma in the winter and spend his summers with another daughter in Ohio, away from the scorching desert heat.  I’d help Grandma fix up the old place, which had been a cookhouse on the oil lease back in the early days.  The bat-and-board siding of the house was so desiccated that I was convinced that the paint I spread on it every summer was all that kept the place standing.  I loved taking a long run, first thing in the morning before it got too hot, out to the oil fields, breathing the mingled scents of creosote bushes and the crude oil, listening to the mournful whine of the pumpjack motors.  I savored the solitude and the sweeping vistas.

Dad donated to the construction of the Taft Oilworker Monument, a bronze partial structure of a derrick with a man with a hat and overalls and a big hammer slung over his broad shoulder.  At the base, there’s a brick memorializing our family heritage in the oil fields. 

Some folks turn up their noses at the smell of crude oil.  But when I pick up a whiff, I smile.  Our family contributed a lot of sweat and muscle to the industry, which was critical to the development of our country.  I’m proud of it, and always will be.

But my sentiments do not prevent me from wishing a speedy end to the oil business.  I have especially strong respect for those who labor in the oil patches of America today.  But it is work that must stop – the sooner, the better – for the sake of the planet.  May honorable people do honorable work installing solar panels and wind turbines, carrying on this legacy of labor in a clean and green fashion. 

As we grapple with the existential crisis of human-caused climate change, we will have a hard time making the transition away from fossil fuels if we show disrespect to the people in this industry.  We must carefully craft our language to attract rather than insult the people who labor still to this day, extracting the fuels that power our vehicles and warm our houses. 

We do well to remember the words of Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address.  He interpreted the Civil War as a punishment for slavery merited by the whole country, North and South alike, and for which the whole country needed to make amends.  Global warming is not the special fault of the hardy workers who pull sucker rods out of oil wells.  It’s the fault of every one of us who has ever used fossil fuels, whether or not we understood the consequences.

So here I amend Lincoln’s 1865 address, replacing “slavery” with “global warming”:

“If we shall suppose that human-caused global warming is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through God’s appointed time, God now wills to remove, and that God gives catastrophe to China and America, Russia and India, the Maldives and Indonesia alike as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of catastrophic climate change may speedily pass away. . . . With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the wounds wrought by global warming, to care for those who have borne its disastrous effects, to do all which may achieve and cherish a healthy planet for ourselves and all nations.”

With malice toward none in the fossil fuel industry, with charity for all, let us strive mightily for a clean-energy future.

Senior Associate Dean,

Office of Religious Life, 
University of Southern California

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